Hunters, protectionists continue fight over Alaska wolf kills

January 04, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- In the great forests near here, the state has begun killing wolves by the dozens -- trying to reduce predators and save caribou for human hunters.

To the displeasure of almost everyone involved, the wolves are being slain in the worst of ways, causing suffering and social disruption among these highly organized and rare creatures.

Political compromise and worry about national reaction have brought Alaska to this unhappy pass. A hotblooded clash between hunters, environmentalists and animal protectionists is now also a tale about the fickle attention of the news media and the torturous maneuverings by both sides to shape public opinion.

As of this week, 65 wolves, mostly young animals, have been slain by Alaska Department of Fish and Game trappers. The animals are lured by the bait of moose and caribou carcasses, and then choked in preset neck snares. If they don't die in the snares, they are shot to death on the spot.

The government's goal is to eliminate 100 to 150 wolves, or 75 percent to 80 percent of those who roam a 4,030-square-mile area between Fairbanks and Denali National Park to the south.

With rolling forests and foothills spread across an area bigger than Connecticut, this area was once popular with caribou hunters from Fairbanks. But the local caribou herd, which numbered 10,700 four years ago has dropped to 4,000 head, and as a result, hunting of caribou has been prohibited here since November 1991.

Hunters say they believe that predation by wolves and grizzly bears, combined with uncommonly harsh winters, has driven down the number of caribou, and that the animals now need extra protection if they are to rebound quickly.

Nonsense, opponents say, caribou herds fluctuate dramatically in size, usually without relation to predators, and Alaska's overall caribou population is at near record highs if only hunters would venture farther from the roads to hunt.

But the argument is really larger and more fundamental -- a contest for meat and dominance, if you will, between those two relentless predators, Canis lupus and Homo sapien.

Hunters say they believe that Alaska's 5,000 to 7,000 wolves -- which are not listed as threatened or endangered here as they are in the Lower 48 -- are getting more than a fair share of the caribou and moose everywhere in the state.

Environmentalists counter that no humans are starving for lack of game, so nature should be left largely intact.

Alaska stirred up a national stink last winter when it sided with hunters and advanced a plan to kill wolves in three large areas within reach of Fairbanks.

At that time -- and this became a key to events that followed -- the Department of Fish and Game proposed tracking radio-collared wolves from the air and shooting entire packs at a time. Aerial wolf control had been standard fare in the state on and off until the early 1980s.

The idea aroused national rage, and a tourism boycott by the Fund for Animals in Washington and the Friends of Animals in Connecticut. The boycott was joined by other groups and sent panic through Alaska's political and tourism establishment. Vacation travel bookings slumped, and officials said the wolf kill looked like it might be harder on their industry than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Republican Gov. Walter J. Hickel stepped in and decreed that there would be no aerial wolf control.

Environmentalists and animal protectionists rejoiced. The tourism boycott was lifted. Hunters fumed.

For many Americans, the tale ended there. The national news media retreated.

But Fairbanks-area hunters and trappers appealed to the state Board of Game. The panel, which is dominated by hunters and trappers and has a constitutional mandate to manage game for public harvest, approved an experimental wolf-control program that would rely on snare traps in one of the three large tracts. Private hunting and trapping regulations also were liberalized throughout the state.

Such ground-based trapping is fraught with its own problems, however.

Government scientists, hunter activists and the opponents of wolf control all agree that it is far less desirable than aerial hunting: Shooting generally brings a swifter end than strangling in a snare, and aerial hunting allows entire packs to be eliminated rather than randomly reducing the numbers in each pack.

Many biologists say they believe that for animals with elaborate communal relationships like wolves, taking out packs in their entirety causes the least of what humans think of as social disruption.

"We are shredding their social structure -- the very thing that makes them wolves. We're not talking about just having four-legged canines survive out there, but wolves. And what makes them wolves is their very sophisticated social structure. That's what sets this species apart," said Gordon Haber, a wildlife scientist who has studied wolves for 28 years. He is working under a contract with animal protection organizations opposed to the state trapping and snaring program.

Another consideration is that eliminating random wolves rather than entire packs may trigger greater breeding among survivors -- as is known to happen with coyotes.

But having fought off aerial hunting last year, opponents of the wolf kill are not inclined to embrace it now as a compromise.

"Biologically it may make more sense [to shoot them from the air]. But it's like saying what's the best way to kill a kindergarten class. This is absolutely miserable stuff, and I'm just not going to approve any killing at all," said Pricilla Feral, whose Friends of Animals group is leading the call for a renewed tourism boycott in 1994.

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